How Design Helped Us Talk About UX Writing
A group of Microsoft writers are rewriting the rules of the conventional critique
One of the things I love about Microsoft is the alignment of three different functions that I believe are better together: design, research, and content. Our fearless design leader, Albert Shum, talked about how these functions all work together. Because we are better together, we can challenge each others’ assumptions and biases. We can also help each other develop empathy, which is core in our processes to develop and evolve products.
In a previous article, Ian delved into the one of the ways we developed an inclusive design critique process to ensure all voices were heard. Zach wrote about how we can embrace our individual strengths for better critiques. Our writers participate in design critiques to give and receive feedback about an overall design — including the words in the design. In design critiques, we’re able to put ourselves in our customers’ shoes and consider how the design helps (or doesn’t help) a customer solve problems.
One of our designers recently said, “if you’re doing your job right, you’re asking peers for help.” That statement encapsulates the value writers get from participating in design critiques. We decided to borrow the concept to instate our own writing critiques.
Design critiques are dead simple: get in a room with other people, look at works in progress, and talk to each other. It didn’t take much effort to repurpose the process for our team of writers.
One of our amazing UX writers scheduled a weekly, one-hour meeting and invited a broad range of writers who create content for different audiences. Each week, a group of writers gets into a room, spins up a Microsoft Teams session for anyone who can’t make it in person, and starts sharing.
Our writing critiques are a conversation, not a presentation. The writer who shows their work provides some context and shares what they’ve written, and then we have a conversation as a writing team. Sometimes we riff on language during the discussion. Other times, we whiteboard different elements of the content to construct different versions of text.
Most of the conversation isn’t about the words, though — it’s about checking our assumptions, including diverse perspectives, and collaborating to create language that solves problems.
By the end of the meeting, we may not have perfect text that’s ready to be released to customers, but we walk away with rich feedback and actionable recommendations that help us move forward.
Differences from design critiques
The things we think about in writing critiques are sometimes different from the things designers think about in design critiques. For example, all of the text we create is translated into dozens of languages. Sometimes that translation happens with people, and other times it happens with machines — which may change how we think about the words we use. English is a complex language with subtleties and nuances that are not always obvious, and bringing people together to talk about what language means to them helps us make better choices.
Writers also have style guides, and our writers follow Microsoft style when creating content. Critiques are good opportunities for writers to be each other’s editors, ensuring we’re creating consistent experiences for our audience. Perhaps more importantly, though, writing critiques prompt conversations about when to break conventions and try something new. For example, a headline like, “Three steps left” follows our style guidelines to the letter, but we might decide together that “3 steps left!” is an appropriate break from convention to provide the right tone in a scenario.
The most important thing we do in writing critiques is remind each other that our customers — no matter what persona, segment, or other category they may fall into — are humans. If a writer reads a string in robot voice during a writing critiques, and it sounds like that voice matches the text… we’ve gotten it wrong!
In the past few months of having regular writing critiques, our writing team has learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work in this process. In my next article, I’ll share some best practices we’ve developed for our writing critiques. Stay tuned for more!
How does your team handle writing critiques? Share your methods in the comments below.